Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

1978: Vertigo (Shaw, Bob)

Induces empathy and predictability (3/5)

This is only my second Bob Shaw novel (the first being Ground Zero Man) but I can already draw parallels between the two, and hopefully extend this assumption with his other works. Ground Zero Man was special for its empathetic characterization of mathematician Hutchman and his coping with the knowledge that could save or destroy the world. The general outline may seem hokey but Bob Shaw's gift for characterization carries the reader through the novel. This is exactly the same case for Vertigo: a turmoiled man is empathetically characterized and he must confront his demons to save the day.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Rob Hasson was an Air Patrolman, one of the best, until the day someone jumped him in mid-air and sent him hurtling into a fall that should have killed him. Now his mind, still tormented by memories of the shrieking air and rushing ground, protects his patched-together body by refusing to let him fly again. And what use to anyone is an Air Patrolman who's afraid to fly? Rob Hasson thinks he's a coward. No one could have foreseen the chain of events that would prove him wrong."

In a world where flying with CG belts (counter-gravity devices) is the norm for personal transportation, once Air Patrolman Rob Hasson must bear the burden of not being able to become airborne again due to his healing spine. Expected to testify a trail concerning his plummet to earth, Rob enters a witness protection program and subsumes the alias of Rob Haldane, a fictional cousin to a Canadian city reeve in Tripletree, Alberta. Once in Canada, Rob experiences the small town life with its small town characters and its general contrasts with the life he is use to in England. His host, Al Werry, is also a mentally shattered man who believes he lacks human emotions and surrounds himself with a narcissistic girlfriend, her crabby mother, a blind son from his prior marriage, and his mafioso so-called friends.

While convalescing, Rob's mental ailments manifest themselves in physical weaknesses: back spasms, ulcers, and acute anorexia. His shyness for being in the social limelight has him secluding himself in his bedroom, avoiding petty dialogue, and being submissive to the oppressive personalities. A chance encounter with a Chinese herbal store clerk puts Rob on the correct path for recuperation, with a daily diet of yeast powder and ginseng. The physical regeneration of his ailments bolsters healing for his low self-esteem, too. When Rob finds his true self, changes can then be made in the psyche of Al Werry and his crumbling family life.

The above summery highlights Shaw's skill at characterization in Vertigo. Nearly every factor found in the plot builds upon the personalities of either Werry or Hasson. When you understand their situations, you understand the men and their actions. The turmoiled Hasson is a character to root for when you see his hermetic isolation rear its head: "It was much better to lie curled up in a womb-cave of eider and to submerge his mind in the dreaming of other men's dreams." (128) Then there's Weery's self hate reflected in his speech: "I don't really exist. I go around in my uniform most of the time because when I;m wearing it, I can convince myself I'm the city reeve. I haven't even got a sense of humor... I don't know what's funny and what isn't. (125-126)

The progressively predictable plot is secondary to the importance of building up the two men's characterization. In the town of Tripletree there is a 400-meter tall derelict hotel, named Chinook, owned by the mafioso friend of Werry. Teenagers from all around like to squat in the hotel, take empathetic-inducing drugs, and perform illegal aerial maneuvers in the sky above the city. The plot is brought back to the Chinook hotel again and again, which foreshadows some disaster which ONLY Rob Hasson can attend you (you can bet on that). The predictability of the novel is a let down, but Bob Shaw's determination to not make everything so flowery is a good off-set. There are some tense scenes between Hasson and Werry's girlfriend and mother, Hasson and the blind son, and Hasson and the mafioso. Neither does Shaw shy away from asides of humor or snippets of death.

If you're looking for a snazzy plot, this here ain't no rodeo, son. But if you like to delve into the lives and minds of a few self-hating, downtrodden men, then this would be the Louve of Loathing. Shaw definitely had a knack for kneading the souls of weary men into empathetic characters. With Shaw's Orbitsville, One Million Tomorrows, and Fire Pattern still on my shelves, I'm eager to experience the written work of Shaw again.


  1. Wow, sounds so similar to Ground Zero Man! One Million Tomorrows is more plot driven -- but sadly, a bad sort of plot when the societal issues at stake are a million times more interesting.

    1. Remind me of my qualms with Iain Banks. His "Culture" universe is great but he keeps writing books about the whiz-bang aspects of the contact unit, rather than the grassroots foundation. Future societies make great reads it's just hard to come across one that focuses on that issue.